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Outdoors commentary: Walleye Pete's island hopping campaign

In his 22-year military career Captain "Walleye Pete" Dahlberg never served under General Douglas MacArthur, but he has adopted MacArthur's famous "island hopping campaign" tactics with similarly successful results. The results in this case are catching lots of Chesapeake Bay stripers, speckled trout, redfish, bluefish, croakers and a few other incidental species.

"The weather's going to be great," Pete assured me when I signed up for a "walk on" trip recently. Pete takes parties of six anglers on his 27-foot, full cabin Judge Chesapeake model boat. Typically a group of six anglers gets together to book his boat, but Pete also offers "walk on" trips, where an individual can book a trip that will include others he may not know. I like the walk on approach, since less advanced planning is required.

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Our group included, regular "walk ons," Jim Marecki, Bill Knower and Ken Zuknick plus Christian Terreros, Tim Bennett and me.

Pete's "great weather" forecast proved a bit optimistic. Winds in the 12-knot range made for considerable Chesapeake Bay chop, and instead of diminishing, winds picked up as the day progressed. Likewise intermittent light showers developed in the afternoon. We were able to duck into the cabin when we weren't fishing, and rain gear - always bring it - sufficed at other times.

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The islands we targeted are the mid-bay complex of South Marsh, Bloodsworth and Smith Islands, and numerous small, satellite islands continually formed, reformed and lost due to erosion. "I've got two weeks of spots to fish without repeating," Pete described this target rich area.

Unlike most guides and individuals fishing these areas, we launched from the western shore, crossing the Bay from Buzz's Marina on the St. Jerome's Creek in the Point No Point area. The crossing took us north of the large area generically described as the Middle Grounds. So we followed Pete's usual plan of hitting a rocky, mid-Bay hump in about 16 feet of water on the way across.

Pete's standard tackle for this fishing consists of medium spinning tackle and braided line with a 20-pound monofilament leader. Preferred lures are a 1-ounce jighead and 6-inch pearl or chartreuse BKDs for fishing the mid-Bay humps and a 1/8 to 3/8 ounce jigheads with the same BKD or 4-inch Bass Assassin or swimtail jigs for the shallow waters around the islands. The hot lure on our trip was a red, 3/8-ounce jighead with a chartreuse Bass Assassin.

Before launching Pete reviewed his "4-foot rule" for boating fish: Reel in the fish to within four feet of the rod tip, then lean the rod against the gunwhale, grab the line/leader and complete the boating with a hand-over-hand retrieve. This approach avoids breaking the rod or line and the dangers of having a hook spring loose under tension and flying into the boat.

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It was a bouncy ride to our mid-bay spot. But as soon as we arrived, Jim and Ken clambered around the cabin to the front deck, and the rest of us took positions in the stern. Pete's depthfinder showed fish, and we soon began picking them up steadily. The original plan was to work the mid-Bay humps for a couple of hours then move to the islands as the tide changed. However, when one of our anglers began turning green, Pete headed for the calmer, more protected waters of the islands.

Since this was Pete's 2138th trip in his 9-year Chesapeake Bay guiding career, he knew the territory.

We hit a series of islands and caught stripers at every one. Typically, we took four or five fish before drifting out of range. Several times we circled back for another pass at a productive island point; more often we quickly motored to a new spot. "I don't ever waste time," Pete said.

His knowledge of the territory was impressive and helpful. The depthfinder could not read the shallow bottoms 50 to 100 feet from the boat. So Pete would tell us if the waters at the shoreline were shallow or deep, full of stumps - usually - or fairly open, and whether there were secondary drop-offs worth working. While we fished, Pete had to maneuver the boat along the shorelines and amongst the crabpots. (Crabbers knew these waters, too, and I sometimes used the crabpots as indicators of holes or secondary dropoffs. It worked.) The stumps claimed a number of our jigs -- par for the course in these waters.

As is typical of this area and much of the Bay shallows in early fall, most of our fish were small, in the 12 to 16-inch range. But we took more than our limit of stripers 18 inches up to 25 inches. We took only stripers, as the bluefish and speckled trout are departing. Bigger stripers will soon be arriving from the north and the south.

Walleye Pete will be running his island-hopping trips to around Thanksgiving, then he will switch to pounding the pilings of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) for larger stripers and bluefish. To book a party or walk on trip, see his website at walleyepete.com or phone 703-395-9955.

Two other guides with intimate knowledge of this area and even more experience fishing it from their smaller, center console boats are Captain Dan Harrison, crisfield.com/fly, phone 410-968-0219 and Captain Kevin Josenhans, josenhansflyfishing.com, phone 443-783-3271. Both launch from Crisfield, cater to fly and light tackle fishermen, usually take out only two fishermen, sometimes, three and can sometimes also accommodate walk ons. I have fished with both and highly recommend them.

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